Scared About North Korea? You Aren’t Scared Enough

A picture made available by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaking during the 7th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), the first such congress held in 36 years since 1980, in Pyongyang, North Korea, 06 May 2016. EPA/KCNA

A Q&A with Jeffrey Lewis, aka the Arms Control Wonk, on why Kim’s ICBM launch shouldn’t have been a surprise.
by Tobin Harshaw
Why is this man smiling?
No matter how hard Americans may have tried to check out of the real world over this long holiday, their idylls were undoubtedly interrupted by the news that North Korea had successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that could conceivably reach the U.S. If paired with a miniaturized nuclear warhead, it poses the greatest new threat to domestic security since the end of the Cold War. And, oh yeah, the guy with his hand on the launcher is a stone-cold nut job who reportedly likes killing close relatives with anti-aircraft guns.

OK, this is scary, but mostly in a theoretical sense. There remain lots of unanswered questions about the sophistication and reliability of the North Koreans’ weapons, not to mention the odds that the dictator Kim Jong Un would sign his own death warrant by using a nuclear device on South Korea, Japan or the world’s remaining military superpower. To get more concrete answers, I spoke with somebody who knows as much as anybody about the Hermit Kingdom’s mysterious ways: Jeffrey Lewis — or, as he is known to his more than 30,000 Twitter followers, @armscontrolwonk. Lewis is the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, writes for Foreign Policy, and oversees a lively blog on nonproliferation issues — no, that is not an oxymoron — at
I talked with Lewis about the latest North Korean achievement, the history and future of the regime’s nuclear program, and what it’s like to live in the heart of the fallout zone should Kim make good on his threat to turn the Pacific Coast into a “sea of fire.” Here is a transcript of the discussion:
Tobin Harshaw: North Korea’s successful ICBM launch seems to have surprised many “experts” in the commentariat, even given its previous progress with ballistic missiles. Yet you warned of this possibility in a blog post more than a year ago, and again after Trump was elected. Did you know something others didn’t, or does this just reflect a failure of the cognoscenti to take the threat seriously?
Jeffrey Lewis: I’ve written two books on the history of China’s nuclear weapons program. The American reaction to Mao’s China and the bomb was pretty similar to the reaction to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program today. China’s goal, from the get-go in the 1950s, was to put a thermonuclear weapon on an ICBM that could reach the U.S. Americans had real trouble accepting that because it didn’t fit our image of a backwards, impoverished China. Of course, that was precisely why the Chinese did it. They had a different view of themselves and their future. It seems the same to me with North Korea. We think they are a joke. But I don’t see them laughing — well, except in photos right after successful missile tests. They laugh plenty in those.
TH: Was the U.S. military/intelligence community as surprised as the news media and think-tankers seemed to be?
JL: I don’t think the Pentagon or the intelligence agencies were surprised. Bob Gates, when he was secretary of defense, very deliberately spent 2011 warning that North Korea was developing a road-mobile ICBM, at one point saying “I never would have dreamed” they would go this route. The Pentagon expanded the number of interceptors for the ground-based midcourse missile defense — GMD — system in Alaska a few years ago, after North Korea paraded a small number of mockup ICBMs, to make sure there was enough coverage. And when asked about North Korea’s space launch program, Missile Defense Agency officials were clear that they were more focused on defending against North Korea’s road-mobile ICBMs. They seemed to take it pretty seriously.
TH: Having an ICBM is one thing, having a miniaturized nuclear warhead to put on it is another. Kim has bragged about mastering the technology, and released a (unintentionally hilarious) propaganda photo of himself standing next to their supposed device. Do you think he’s lying? If so, how close are they?
JL: I don’t have any doubt that North Korea has a compact fission device that fits on a ballistic missile. North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests –- and if we look at the other nuclear powers, after five nuclear tests they were all capable of building compact nuclear weapons and/or well on their way to thermonuclear weapons. To go back to my point about China, the U.S. expressed the same skepticism about whether China could make a compact device small enough to fit on a missile. The Chinese responded by altering their nuclear test schedule so that their fourth nuclear test, in 1966, was a test of a live nuclear warhead on a real missile, which they fired across their country. The Chinese made their point. I hope the North Koreans doesn’t feel the need to do something similar and fly a nuclear-armed missile over Japan.
TH: There has been much debate over the source of the North’s missile and nuclear technology. They claim it is self-created, but others see a Pakistani hand in it. What is the truth — and if rogue nations are helping, what do we do about it?
JL: The North Koreans certainly have had help: The first Scud missiles in North Korea were probably ¬¬supplied by Egypt. Iranian and Russian entities have helped North Korea develop other missiles. The nuclear industry is largely Soviet in origin, although North Korea’s first centrifuges for uranium were brought from Pakistan in a barter.
But almost no missile or nuclear program is truly indigenous. Take a look at the Disney documentaries on the U.S. space program from the 1950s — lots of Germans, including Wehrner von Braun! Every new nuclear power stands on the shoulders of the others. Probably the biggest help is simply knowing that certain concepts will work because others have done so. At this point, I think the North Koreans are fairly good at this, and why shouldn’t they be? Nuclear-armed missiles are a 1950s-era technology.
Having said that, we have seen a lot of cooperation between the Iranian and North Korean missile programs. That cooperation may be less important to both countries today, but I would still like to see it end.
TH: Experts say that if the ICBM was put on a more traditional angle, it could have flown 4,000 miles as opposed to the 600 or so it went before falling into the Sea of Japan. That would put all of Alaska in range if true. But you wrote the other day in the Daily Beast that it could possibly bring the continental U.S. into play as well. Tell us why, and whether the U.S. is taking that threat seriously enough.
JL: Well, there is a difference between the range the missile demonstrated last week, which was about 4,000 miles, and what the simulations we do at the Middlebury Institute suggest the missile may be capable of. My colleages, along with David Wright at the Union of Concerned Scientists, looked very closely at the launch of a new intermediate-range missile in May, as well as this one, trying to measure the missile and model its performance. It seems to me the North Korea cut the engines a bit early here, possibly so they did not overfly Japan. But they have been very clear their targets are in the continental U.S. — the Pacific Fleet in San Diego, Washington, and lately New York City — not Alaska. And our initial modeling of this missile suggests that it should be able to deliver a nuclear-weapon sized payload to most, if not all, those places. We’re still modeling away though.
TH: Which leads us to the question of what we do about it. The latest U.S. missile-defense test was a failure, as have the vast majority. Is the idea of a domestic shield — the ability to “hit a bullet with a bullet” — realistic, at least with today’s technology? Is the money Congress wants put aside for studies of an East Coast shield just silly?
JL: Some missile defenses are a good investment, while others are not. The system that failed recently, the SM-3 Block IIA is, I think, still a really good investment — although it is designed to deal with medium- and intermediate-range missiles and would be pretty helpless against an ICBM.
If we want to shoot down a North Korean ICBM headed for the U.S., we have to rely on the ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system based in Alaska and southern California. The idea for a third site, possibly in the Northeast, came from a National Academies panel that was co-chaired by a friend of mine, the great Walt Slocombe. It is worth reading why Walt’s panel actually proposed adding a third site — they concluded that the GMD system intended to defend the U.S. against a North Korean or Iranian ICBM needed to be completely redesigned, with new interceptors, new radars and a new concept of operations. They did not recommend adding a third site with existing technology, but rather suggested starting over almost at square one. That little detail sort of got overlooked.
TH: How about the Eastern European shield against Iran? Will it work? And is Russia right to see that as threat to its security?
JL: The system in Europe — known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach or EPAA — is a good approach. As the name says, it has phases and is designed to be adaptable as threats change. Iran is nutty about missiles and NATO members should definitely make reasonable investments to defend against them.
The Russian objections strike me as a pretext. What annoys Vladimir Putin is that Poland and Romania are NATO members in the first place. And the Russians are convinced that the U.S. plans to secretly arm missile defense interceptors in Poland and Romania with nuclear weapons to get around the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty and wipe out the Kremlin in a conflict. I am tempted to describe that as paranoia, but I think the correct psych 101 analogy is projection — the Russians are cheating on the INF treaty, so they figure we must be doing it, too. I just don’t think the EPAA poses any threat to Russia at all, but it doesn’t help to explain that to the Russians because they are actually worried about something else.
TH: Of course, North Korea has other weaponry. The U.S. is bent on deploying a full THAAD defense in South Korea, while the new government there has been less than fully cooperative. How effective would it be against other missiles? And can anything be done about the North’s conventional artillery batteries?
JL: THAAD would provide some defense against medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles for at least the southern two-thirds of the country. The North Koreans have conducted Nodong missile launches that were intended to simulate a nuclear strike against U.S. forces concentrated in the port at Busan. THAAD would help with that — and that is an important contribution.
But we need to be realistic about what THAAD can do — and what it cannot do. THAAD can’t protect Seoul against short-range ballistic missiles or artillery fire. And THAAD has a forward-looking radar that would be vulnerable from behind to an attack from North Korea’s submarine-launched missiles. South Korea needs a lot more than one THAAD battery. South Korea is investing huge amounts of money in indigenous missile defenses, including buying Russian technology, but it is not realistic to expect missile defenses to provide more than a limited defense for U.S. and South Korean forces in the early stage of a conflict.
TH: The U.S. has been going around in circles on North Korea for decades: multilateral talks, pressure on China, sanctions on Pyonyang, United Nations resolutions, etc. Is there some magic bullet, or at least a way forward, we have ignored?
JL: Nope, we’re hosed. I think there probably was a chance to head this off in the 1990s — back then, North Korea was giving up things it did not yet have for promises of better relations. That was a good deal for North Korea — trading away things it didn’t have. I am critical of the George W. Bush administration for abandoning the 1994 Agreed Framework, which was imperfect but in my opinion a step in the right direction. But to be fair, the Bush administration worked very hard to try to replace the Agreed Framework with something better. They even tried to enlist Muammar Qaddafi to persuade the North Koreans that the U.S. could be trusted to keep its end of a disarmament bargain. I guess, in hindsight, that might not have been the best example to pick.
TH: Some suggest that there is no diplomatic or military solution and our best bet is to live with a nuclear North Korea and assume Kim is sane enough to see he’d destroy his own country by using them. Wise?
JL: What’s the serenity prayer?
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
I think this is one of those things that we cannot change. So, yes, we need to accept it. That doesn’t mean deterrence will function all by itself, though. It makes sense to look also at bolstering our defenses. I am sure there will be plenty of proposals.
We also need to look at how we can reduce tension with North Korea. I don’t think the North Koreans are going to deliberately start a nuclear war, but I think they might use those weapons if they thought a war was coming and they needed to get a jump on the U.S. and South Korea. And, despite the poor track record of decapitation strikes, the idea really frightens the North Koreans. But instead of making them behave, I suspect it will lead them to do things that I really don’t like, such as releasing nuclear weapons to lower level missile units.
Also, it would be great if someone would take away President Trump’s smartphone. That would be a boon to global security, not just on the Korean peninsula.
TH: We tend to look at Iran and North Korea as our only random nuclear threats. Where do you think the world’s greatest threat of nuclear war exists? India-Pakistan?
JL: Maybe I just like the classics, but Russia still has several thousand nuclear weapons and a bewildering array of new nuclear weapons programs under development, including a few blasts from the past (like nuclear-armed missile defenses and rail-mobile ICBMs) and some things that seem like science fiction (a nuclear-armed underwater drone). I am fairly worried we are slipping into a new arms race.
I am somewhat worried about China’s enthusiasm for dual-capable missile systems that can be nuclear or conventional. The ideas I hear out of China for signaling with nuclear weapons and then using conventional missiles rely on the U.S. being able to tell which is which. I am not sure that is a good call on their part.
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The biggest thing that worries me, though, isn’t a country — it is the rate of technological change. The buzzword right now is “disruption” — in business, it’s very lucrative to figure out how a new technology will disrupt old ways of doing things, like Uber wiping out taxis. “Disruption” is a lot less appealing of a concept when we we’re talking about stable nuclear deterrence instead of getting a ride to the airport.
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